The Red Forest

Following the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, an area (4-6 km2) of coniferous forest was killed by high levels of radiation. The affected area has become known as the 'Red Forest' as the needles of the trees turned red (or, more accurately, orange) in 1986 prior to their death. The Red Forest subsequently regenerated to some extent with deciduous trees (which are less sensitive to radiation than coniferous species) and understorey vegetation. The area is the most anthropogenically contaminated radioactive ecosystem on earth and reports of effects on its wildlife continue to be published. See our recent papers:

In July 2016 there was a severe fire in the Red Forest when approximately 80% of the forest was burnt. The RED FIRE project conducted studies in the Red Forest over the year after the fire. Results from this work are being analysed and written-up but in the meantime you can find a summary of our activities below.

We have updated this page given the interest in the effects of fires in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) as a consequence of the widespread fires in April 2020 (https://tree.ceh.ac.uk/news-and-media/news/april-2020-map-fires-chernobyl-exclusion-zone).

Family of deer in a forest setting
Feral dogs in a snowy forest

RED FIRE activities

Soil function - underpinning ecosystem services

In September 2016 60 study plots were set up in the Red Forest (control sites were also established in a less contaminated woodland within the CEZ). The Red Forest study plots were distributed in unburnt areas of the Red Forest, burnt areas showing some signs of regrowth in September 2016, and burnt areas with minimal/no regrowth. Bait lamina sticks (https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02986394) were deployed at the study plots to measure soil organism feeding activity. Bait lamina were deployed in Autumn 2016, Spring 2017 and finaly, in Autumn 2017. 

Results indicate that fire reduced soil biological activity. We are in the process of fully analysing our data, with the hope of submitting a paper in late 2020. Estimated dose rates to earthworms at the Red Forest plots range from 15 to >600 µGy/h. 

Mammal and bird activity

WolfWe placed 20 motion activited trap cameras across the Red Forest from September 2016 to September 2017. These primarily record medium/large mammals. We in effect recorded the presence of all medium/large mammals that we had seen in other camera studies across the wider CEZ. Species recorded included: fox, racoon dog, wolf, lynx, pine martin, red deer, roe deer, moose and Przewalski’s horse. Additionally we recorded packs of feral dogs, which are likely those fed by workers at the nearby nuclear power plant, and also people illegally walking across the CEZ (these people refer to themselves as 'Stalkers'). 

Small mammal abundance and diversity was also assessed in the summer of 2017. Species recorded included: bank vole, yellow-necked mice, wood mice, striped field mice and field vole.  As well as the cameras we also deployed bioacoustic recorders to capture soundscapes (a bioacoustic recorder can be seen on a tree on the photograph of the wolf). 

Vegetation recovery

Changes in vegetation cover at the burnt plots was assessed over Autumn 2016 to Autumn 2018. Recovery of vegetation varied between the plots although provisionally this appears to be due to differences in soil characteristics rather than radiation. 

RED FIRE team

RED FIRE was led by UKCEH in collaboration with the Universities of Salford and Nottingham, Chornobyl Center (Ukraine) and the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine. 

Funders: 

  • Natural Environment Research Council